In Classical Greek, Lethe (λήθη; Classical Greek [ˈlεːt̪ʰεː], modern Greek: [ˈliθi]) literally means "forgetfulness" or "concealment". It is related to the Greek word for "truth": a-lethe-ia (αλήθεια), meaning "un-forgetfulness" or "un-concealment". In Greek mythology, Lethe is one of the several rivers of Hades: those who drank from it experienced complete forgetfulness. She was the daughter of Eris ('Strife' in Hesiod's Theogony), and sister to Algos, Limos, Horcus, and Ponos. Lethe was also a naiad, although the naiad Lethe is probably a separate personification of forgetfulness rather than a reference to the river which bears her name.
Amongst authors in Antiquity, the tiny Limia River near Xinzo de Limia in the province of Ourense in Galicia (Spain) was said to have the same properties of memory loss as the legendary Lethe River. In 138 BC, the Roman general Decimus Junius Brutus sought to dispose of the myth, as it impeded his military campaigns in the area. He was said to have crossed the Limia and then called his soldiers on the other side, one by one, by name. The soldiers, astonished that their general remembered their names, crossed the river as well without fear. This act proved that the Limia was not as dangerous as the local myths described. In Alaska, a river which runs through the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes is called River Lethe.
River Lethe is located within the Katmai National Park and Preserve, Lake and Peninsula County, Alaska, USA. Latitude: 58.39556 : Longitude: -155.4southern Alaska. The river was named in 1917 by R. F. Griggs, during expidition in the Katmai region for the National Geographic Society.
In The Divine Comedy, the stream of Lethe flows to the centre of the earth from its surface, but its headwaters are located in the Earthly Paradise found at the top of the mountain of Purgatory. In John Keats' poem, "Ode on Melancholy", the first line begins "No, no! Go not to Lethe". In his Ode to a Nightingale the "Lethe-wards" are said to have sunk into the narrator and created a "drowsy numbness". The fourth stanza of the fourth canto of Byron's "Don Juan" reads: "And if I laugh at any mortal thing,/ 'T is that I may not weep; and if I weep,/ 'T is that our nature cannot always bring/ Itself to apathy, for we must steep/ Our hearts first in the depths of Lethe's spring,/ Ere what we least wish to behold will sleep:/ Thetis baptized her mortal son in Styx;/ A mortal mother would on Lethe fix."
In his poem "The Sleeper," Edgar Allan Poe describes a 'sleeping' "universal valley" that includes a Lethe-like body of water. "Looking like Lethe, see! the lake/A conscious slumber seems to take,/And would not, for the world, awake." Charles Baudelaire's poem "Spleen" ends with the lines "II n'a su réchauffer ce cadavre hébété/Où coule au lieu de sang l'eau verte du Léthé" ("He failed to warm this dazed cadaver in whose veins/Flows the green water of Lethe in place of blood."). He also wrote a poem called "Le Léthé" ("Lethe"). Baudelaire also wrote a poem entitled "Le Lethe" in which an adored but cruel woman serves as a metaphor for the oblivion of the river Lethe. In Hymn to Proserpine (1866) by Algernon Charles Swinburne, the line "We have drunken of things Lethean..." laments the decline of pagan tradition and beliefs in ancient Rome following the endorsement of Christianity as the official religion.
The Edna St. Vincent Millay poem "Lethe" describes the river as "the taker-away of pain,/And the giver-back of beauty!" In "The Scarlet Woman", a poem by African-American poet Fenton Johnson (1888-1958), a young woman resorts to prostitution in order to avoid starvation. The poem concludes with the lines "Now I can drink more gin than any man for miles around./Gin is better than all the water in Lethe."
"Getting There", a 1962 poem by Sylvia Plath, ends with the lines "And I, stepping from this skin/Of old bandages, boredoms, old faces//Step up to you from the black car of Lethe,/Pure as a baby." The river Lethe is mentioned in Allen Ginsberg's poem "A Supermarket in California". Billy Collins, in his poem "Forgetfulness", refers to "a dark mythological river/whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall".
C. S. Lewis refers to Lethe in The Great Divorce when he writes, “‘It is up there in the mountains, very cold and clear, between two green hills. A little like Lethe. When you have drunk of it you forget forever all proprietorship in your own works". The Spirit who talks about the fountain is describing Heaven to an artist, telling him that soon he will forget all ownership of his work. In the volume, Swann's Way, of Marcel Proust's novel, À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), the narrator comments, as he recollects a seemingly lost memory, "...trying to remember, feeling deep within myself a tract of soil reclaimed from the waters of Lethe slowly drying until the buildings rise on it again;"
Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walking: "The Atlantic is a Lethean stream, in our passage over which we have had an opportunity to forget our Old World and its institutions. If we do not succeed this time, there is perhaps one more chance for the race left before it arrives on the banks of the Styx; and that is in the Lethe of the Pacific, which is three times as wide."
In chapter 17 of Graham Greene's novel The Tenth Man, the protagonist Charlot watches the charlatan Carosse beguile the vulnerable Mademoiselle Mangeot: "He knew the game so well, Charlot thought: the restless playboy knew how to offer what most people wanted more than love--peace. The words flowed like water--the water of Lethe."
In Stephen King's novel Rose Madder, Rose, in preparation for retrieving the title character's child from a labyrinth, is warned not to drink from the water from a river she must cross. Later in the story, a few drops of that water, mixed in a soft drink, is used to remove Bill's memories of the latter part of the book's events.
In Piers Anthony's With a Tangled Skein, Niobe accompanies her daughter and granddaughter on a quest to acquire an enchanted paint brush and a harp. During the quest, the trio must cross an illusory representation of the Lethe. Later, in Hell, Niobe must again cross a river, and wonders if it might be the actual Lethe. In Valeer Damen’s novel KATABASIS, one of the main characters has to find and cross the river Lethe as a step in the process of entering the afterlife. “‘There is the plain. Transit. Like a battlefield. All the energy totals of actions and thoughts are there. Wind blows. Tests are there, functionaries, agents from above and below. Introduction functionary cannot help solve tests or help in final adjudication. In the end, river.’” (Damen, 21).
In William Shakespeare's play Hamlet. Hamlet's father's Ghost says the following line to the prince, "I find thee apt, And duller shouldst thou be than the fat weed That roots itself in ease on Lethe wharf,° Wouldst thou not stir in this." (Act 1, scene V) In Antony and Cleopatra Sextus Pompey talks of Antony's supposed military inertia, hoping that "Epicurean cooks / Sharpen with cloyless sauce his appetite, / That sleep and feeding may prorogue his honour / Even till a Lethe'd dullness-" (II.i.24-27).
In Samuel Beckett's radio play Embers, the main character Henry describes conversing with his dead wife: "that's what hell will be like, small chat to the babbling of Lethe about the good old days when we wished we were dead". In Sarah Ruhl's play Eurydice, all the shades must drink from Lethe and become like stones, speaking in their inaudible language and forgetting everything of the world. This river is a central theme of the play. In Offenbach's operetta Orpheus in the Underworld, the character John Styx drinks the waters of Lethe in a deliberate attempt to forget things. His forgetfulness is a significant factor in the plot of the last act.